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Ramsey Finally Gets His Cigar

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NASHVILLE -- Oddly enough, Ron Ramsey, the East Tennessee state senator who had just won the legislative version of the lottery earlier in the day was wandering around in the bar of the downtown Sheraton by his lonesome late Tuesday night.

"I just came down to smoke a cigar. I figured I owed myself that. I couldn't do that upstairs," said the Blountville Republican and erstwhile majority leader, who had a room in the hotel and was obliged to respect its smoking rules.

Henceforth, of course, Ramsey himself will be making the rules in the Senate, having earlier in the day unseated the legendary Senate speaker John Wilder and become Tennessee's lieutenant governor in his own right - the first Republican to hold the title since Reconstruction.

It was understandable, actually, that Ramsey, who had come from a GOP reception honoring new members and had by now experienced God knows how many rituals of congratulation from God knows how many kinds of people, would want to take some private time to reflect on his good fortune.

But he emphasized: "It surprised everybody else. It didn't surprise me." Nor Rosalind Kurita, said Ramsey's interlocutor. It was, after all, the out-of-nowhere vote for Ramsey by the Clarksville Democrat that had sealed Wilder's fate. "You got that right," said Ramsey with the kind of giddy grin that you see at casinos on players who are lucky enough to win and smart enough to quit while they're ahead. And who can keep a secret.

"I've known about it for days," Ramsey said. At a late-afternoon press conference in Legislative Plaza Ramsey had acknowledged having had previous conversations with Kurita. They had not discussed committee assignments, he insisted, other than to assure Kurita that he would be "fair" and would follow his Democratic predecessor's practice by appointing committee chairmen from both parties. He did cite Kurita's background in local (she had been a Montgomery County commissioner) and state government and repeated several times, "She can do anything she wants to do."

Cynics among the press corps had wondered if Wilder's failure to appoint fellow Democrat Kurita as chairman of Transportation two years ago had something to do with her bombshell vote for Ramsey on Tuesday. The one specific change Ramsey had admitted to: There would be a new Speaker Pro Tem to replace Michael Williams, the Republican who had been a close confidant of Wilder's and -- before Kurita changed the arithmetic -- a likely vote for the former Speaker on Tuesday.

Beyond that, Ramsey had told the press very little except that he would, as expected, be a "conservative Republican" wih a "pro-business" agenda and that there would be no passing of an income tax during his tenure as Speaker. He pledged to work with members across the aisle and with House Speaker Jimmy Naifeh and Governor Phil Bredesen, both Democrats.

Somewhat refreshingly, Ramsey had avoided cant at the press conference and confessed that he was "overwhelmed and flattered" to find himself in a position that, he had begun to realize on Tuesday, afforded him both a bodyguard and a driver.

"I'm the lieutenant governor of Tennessee!" Ramsey had said out of honest exultation. So indeed he was.  Right up to the moment Rosalind Kurita said his name out loud during the Senate's roll call, he had been universally expected to be the loser. Close but no cigar, just like two years ago, when Republican defections had caused him to fail by a single vote.

But, uh uh,  there he was on Tuesday night, brandishing his cigar and feeling fully entitled to do so.

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